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CONFIDENCE GAME

How negative feedback impacts women and men differently

woman on cell phone in front of fountain
Reuters/David Mdzinarishvili
A woman is silhouetted in front of a fountain during sunset in Samara, Russia July 18, 2017.
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A while back, I was talking about a new opportunity at my current job with a friend over dinner. On one hand, I felt confident I would be great at it if given the chance. On the other hand, if they rejected me, I was ready and willing to interpret that as ironclad proof that I was terrible.

“I mean, I think I’m great,” I explained fiercely. “And if they don’t think so”—here I faltered—”maybe they’re right!”

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was more or less playing out a research-backed phenomenon: That women are more likely than men to internalize negative feedback—or, in my case, even the possibility of it.

Other people’s negative opinions can have an outsize effect on our self-image, deterring us from pursuing goals and new opportunities. But negative feedback isn’t all bad. Under certain circumstances, internalizing it can be an asset, which means the feedback gender gap doesn’t always put women at a disadvantage.

How negative feedback affects self-confidence

While some research suggests that women chronically underestimate their abilities, other studies have found that it’s not uncommon for both men and women to be overly optimistic about their performance before they get an outside view.

A 2012 study, for example, examined how men and women in MBA programs responded to ratings of their leadership abilities from their peers. On self-evaluations, all students initially rated themselves more highly than their peers rated them, and then adjusted their self-evaluations downward after receiving feedback.

But women revised their views of their own leadership skills more quickly, while men consistently took longer to align their self-evaluations with that of their peers. “These results suggest that women close the gap between self-perception and peers’ feedback faster than men, demonstrating greater sensitivity to social cues,” the study’s co-author Margarita Mayo explained in an article for the Harvard Business Review.

A 2021 study posted on the website of the National Bureau of Economic Research produced similar results. The study, which hasn’t yet been peer reviewed, found that both men and women overestimated how well they’d perform on verbal and math tests. But after receiving the news that they’d gotten lower scores than another randomly-selected participant, women were more circumspect than men about their abilities and less willing to compete.

“Men are adjusting their beliefs back more positively,” even if it doesn’t really align with reality, says Katherine Coffman, one of the co-authors of the NBER study and an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School.

The pros and cons of overconfidence

This raises an interesting question: Is a person better off sustaining an inflated self-perception, or holding a self-image that’s more in line with reality?

It’s true that people who project confidence tend to be seen as more competent and more admirable (pdf), which in turn helps them gain status. “In organizations, people are very easily swayed by others’ confidence even when that confidence is unjustified,” Cameron Anderson, a management professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, said in a release explaining his research on the subject. That means men may well have a leg up in their careers if negative feedback tends to bounce right off of them.

But there are advantages to checking our confidence, too. Psychologist Tomi-Ann Roberts wrote in a much-cited 1991 article that women typically see feedback as “opportunities to gain information about their abilities,” while men may be prone to “a self-confident approach that leads them to deny the informational value of others’ evaluations.” In the long term, if women take negative feedback more seriously, they may have a better shot at improving and growing.

Coffman, of the NBER study, points out that “having an accurate view of [our abilities] might help us to make better decisions around our careers, what to major in, and whether to pursue certain opportunities.

Overconfidence, meanwhile, can come at a cost. Ignoring what people are telling you about your performance is “hardly a prescription for success in the long run,” Coffman’s co-author, Mayo noted in the Harvard Business Review.

In short, women aren’t at a disadvantage if negative feedback prompts them to adjust their self-perception to a more accurate level. But they will lose out if negative feedback shakes their confidence to the point that they give up on trying for promotions or drop out of their chosen field.

How companies can address the feedback gender gap

Managers who generally give opportunities to the first to raise their hands will likely wind up reinforcing gender inequities. So Coffman recommends that organizations “think about ways in which our institutions and processes for selecting talented people can rely a little bit less on like overconfidence as a signal for talent.”

That means relying less on people’s self-assessments, she says, and asking questions like “What’s the talent or skill that we really care about here? And what’s a good measure of that, that I have access to?”

While a lot of career advice for women advises them to work on self-confidence, that’s an individual solution—and the problem is a systemic one. Says Coffman: “The onus shouldn’t be on women to somehow figure this out.”

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